BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. – Ostensible allies in the effort to remove the still-huge piles of debris left behind by Hurricane Katrina are engaged in an increasingly bitter conflict over the progress of the cleanup and the way it is being run.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and its politically connected prime contractor AshBritt, which is overseeing the federal cleanup in most of Mississippi and parts of Louisiana, are in the middle of the fracas. In the wake of the Aug. 29 hurricane – the most destructive in U.S. history -- they have been fending off angry attacks as varied as the wreckage itself – a thick blanket of toppled trees, boards, bricks, shards of glass, wire, clothing and household items that still covers large parts of hard-hit communities along the Gulf Coast.
Maddest are local governments and citizens chafing over what they consider the lackluster pace of debris removal; critics of the process by which the federal contract expected to ultimately be worth $1 billion was awarded; and subcontractors who say their crews and equipment are standing idle even though they were promised abundant work.
Such criticism can be heard in virtually every coastal community between Alabama and Texas, but nowhere is it louder than in Bay St. Louis and Waveland, neighboring towns in Hancock County, Miss., that sustained some of the heaviest damage when Katrina’s 30-plus-foot storm surge crashed ashore.
One of the most outspoken critics is Waveland Mayor Tommy Longo, who charges that a combination of federal bureaucracy and private-sector dithering has substantially set back his city’s recovery.
“With the military, a lieutenant on the ground can make a decision,” he told MSNBC.com. “With FEMA and the Corps, the lieutenant has to run it up the chain of command and wait for someone else to decide what to do.”
'I don't think they're capable of doing the job'
He expresses equal disdain for AshBritt, noting that the Pompano Beach, Fla., environmental services firm is still bringing new subcontractors to Hancock County five months after the storm.
“A contractor like that should be able to get geared up in 30 days,” he said. “If they can’t get geared up in 90 days, I don’t think they’re capable of doing the job.”
The Corps and AshBritt also have been taking it on the chin from subcontractors alleging everything from incompetence in administering the contract to favoritism in handing out the cleanup assignments.
“I would just like to know how many contractors from Mississippi and from other states have gone home bankrupt because the Corps has jerked them around so much,” said Luke Theis, a contractor from Finley, Ohio, who rushed heavy equipment to the Gulf Coast only to see it stand idle for long periods waiting for it to be “placarded” – tagged with tracking numbers – and assigned to specific job sites.
Many locals say they haven’t fared much better.
Debbie Woodcock, a Hancock County landscaping contractor who lost $100,000 in heavy equipment to Katrina and then used her $30,000 insurance settlement to lease a tractor-hoe, a front-end loader and two trucks with 60-cubic-yard dump trailers, said AshBritt has given plum assignments in the most easily accessible debris fields to favored out-of-state contractors while her crew has been underutilized clearing rural roads.
“I do not fault (AshBritt) for bringing them in,” she said of the out-of-state competition. “There’s no way we could have handled this in the beginning ... but now we deserve a chance to make a living and keep the money in-house.”
Click 'Play' to see and hear Debbie Woodcock describe her experience as a subcontractor for AshBritt
Another local subcontractor, who spoke with MSNBC.com on the condition of anonymity because he said he feared retribution, said he was receiving good jobs from AshBritt, but was being hampered by “utterly incompetent” execution by the Corps.
“Our crews move around constantly .. .but often when they get to a new site, the supervisor doesn’t show up. So we end up sitting around, burning money,” he said.
Corps, contractor cite scope of job
Officials with the Corps and AshBritt say they understand the frustration, given that they and their grumbling partners are faced with the biggest disaster cleanup in U.S. history.
In Hancock County alone, the Corps and its contractors already have collected more than 3 million cubic yards of debris from public right of ways. That is less than half the estimated total of 7 million cubic yards of debris in the county, and reflects the fact that work is just beginning work on several vast debris fields – including a 2.5 acre wetland at Bayou La Croix estimated to contain 35,000 cubic yards of debris -- and its program to remove Katrina’s detritus from private properties is just hitting stride.
And Hancock County’s mounds account for a small slice of the total of 100 million cubic yards the Corps estimates was strewn around the Gulf Coast.
“I don’t know that anybody could have been prepared to respond to a storm of this magnitude,” said Jasper Lummus, the Corps’ mission manager for debris in Hancock County.
Lummus said the record number of hurricanes this season and foreign conflicts that taxed the Corps’ resources -- especially its ability to adequate numbers of on-site quality assurance inspectors -- added to the difficulties.
“We had to compete with Texas, Louisiana and Florida, not to mention Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said.<
AshBritt President Randal Perkins denies the company is being unfair in doling out assignments, adding that some out-of-state contractors have been given the biggest jobs because they have resources that the locals lack.
Complaints about fairness called inevitable
He also told MSNBC.com that such complaints are inevitable in such a chaotic situation.
“Seventy-two percent of every dollar we’ve spent has gone to Mississippi contractors,” he said. “… But you can’t make everyone happy. There’s always going to be somebody critical of what you’re doing.”
He also said the massive effort is making good headway and predicted the cleanup will be “significantly completed by the end of April (or) mid-May.”
In Hancock County, criticism of the pace of the cleanup has been fueled by data regarding the execution of Rights of Entry – the removal of debris on private property.
As of Jan. 26, the Corps had received 8,594 ROE forms from the county, but AshBritt’s subcontractors had completed debris removal on 1,073 properties – or 12 percent of the total -- over a seven-week period, according to figures provided by the county’s Emergency Operations Center.
In just four weeks, Beck Disaster and Recovery Services, a private contractor hired by the city of Waveland to clean debris north of the railroad tracks, completed 75 percent of the 705 ROE requests it has received from residents, according to data the firm provided to the city.
“Those numbers should be flip-flopped,” said Longo, Waveland’s frustrated mayor. “With the resources of the Corps and AshBritt, the numbers should be the opposite of what they are.”
AshBritt’s Perkins rejected the comparison, noting that the city’s southern sector sustained much heavier damage than the area north of the railroad tracks.
“The mayor’s entitled to his opinion,” he said. “But the cleanup now is relegated to private property and includes … demolishing houses. There’s a process involved and it’s far more time consuming than picking up wreckage on right of ways.”
But Waveland’s mayor isn’t the only one questioning the efficiency of the Corps-AshBritt effort.
Aldermen in Pass Christian, Miss., in neighboring Harrison County, voted in January to give the Corps and AshBritt two weeks to address complaints that work is progressing at a snail’s pace and that AshBritt isn’t hiring local subcontractors. The remainder of Harrison County and at least three other communities in Mississippi also have hired private contractors rather than go with the Corps and AshBritt.
That indicates a substantial level of distrust, since local governments must pay 10 percent of the total cost to outside contractors if they decide to shun the federal program, then seek federal reimbursement later.
Communities negotiate better deals
One reason for the break-away is that those communities have been able to negotiate cheaper deals than the rate called for in the debris cleanup contract the Corps awarded to AshBritt after an expedited open-bid process that lasted just three days, instead of the usual month or more.
The exact savings are hard to pin down, but Longo said that a Corps official told local officials at a meeting in October that AshBritt was being paid about $6 a cubic yard more than the $16.95 that Waveland is paying its prime contractor to remove and dump debris.
Alicia Embrey, a Corps spokeswoman, would not confirm that, saying only that AshBritt receives $17 per cubic yard hauled as well as “additional line items in the contract.”
“The prices paid per item are proprietary information (under the terms of the contract) and are not releasable,” she said.
But a line-item sheet for ROEs distributed by AshBritt to its subcontractors, a copy of which was provided to MSNBC.com, makes clear just how lucrative those extras can be. Among the prices paid to the subcontractors:
· $79 for each “hanger” – a limb 2 inches in diameter or larger removed because it poses a safety hazard.
· Payments of between $100 and $700 for “leaners” – dead or damaged trees angled more than 30 degrees.
· Up to $395 for the removal of stumps, with additional payments if dirt is brought in to fill the hole.
Such add-ons can add up, as one ROE job site that the Corps showed MSNBC.com demonstrated.
At the lot on Waveland’s Sandy Street, a subcontractor, Billy Joe’s Excavating from Owensboro, Ky., was in the process of removing what the Corps quality assurance specialist Dennis Murchison estimated “upwards of 400 cubic yards of debris” and 25 damaged trees from a lot on Waveland’s Sandy Street.
At the rate of $9 per cubic yard that AshBritt is paying subcontractors, that works out to an overall price of at least $11,100 for a three-day job, assuming the median rate for the trees. At a rate of $17 per cubic yard, and assuming the same rate for trees, AshBritt and other contractors higher up on the construction food chain would split another $10,700.
Firm connected to GOP, hired former Corps official
AshBritt's political connections and use of lobbyists led to some raised eyebrows when the company received the Katrina contract – worth an initial $500 million and another $500 million if the Corps triggers an option, which Perkins said he expects will occur in late February.
The Corps said at the time that AshBritt, and three other companies awarded cleanup contracts on an expedited basis, were selected from 22 bidders based on “past performance, technical capability, ability to provide sub-contracting goals for small and disadvantaged businesses, ability to respond, and price.”
But the company’s political connections have prompted congressional investigators to look into the contract and payments to its subcontractors, the New York Times reported in September.
Among the links presumably being scrutinized are the company’s $40,000 contract with the former lobbying firm of Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican stalwart who was Ronald Reagan’s White House political director and a former chairman of the Republican National Committee.
The Hill newspaper also has reported that AshBritt also hired the former head of the Corps, Mike Thompson, as its lobbyist shortly before it won the contract.
In addition, campaign records compiled by the nonpartisan group Political Money Line and reported by the Associated Press show Perkins, AshBritt’s president, and his wife, Saily, have given $50,000 to the Republican National Committee, $10,000 to the Florida Senate campaign of Mel Martinez, former secretary of housing and urban development in the Bush administration, and thousands more to the Florida GOP since 2000.
Also attracting attention was the insertion in the contract of language preventing the Corps from releasing information that AshBritt identifies as “proprietary,” such as the line-item payments.
Alex Knott, political editor for the Center for Public Integrity, said such that such language could be used to dodge public accountability.
“A lot of times companies don’t want to give out details of how they do business ... arguing that giving out this information would put them at a competitive disadvantage,” he said. “But it’s difficult to know whether that’s a legitimate concern without seeing the information that they’re withholding.”
AshBritt’s Perkins said his company won the contract on the merits of its bid and played down the importance of the non-disclosure clause, describing it as standard legal language.
“We’re not really worried about it getting in the hands of the competitors,” he said. “It will eventually become public.”
Conspiracy theories abound
The secrecy surrounding contract specifics has helped fuel conspiracy theories among those trying to make a living on the spoils of destruction.
Several Hancock County contractors interviewed by MSNBC.com, all of who spoke on condition of anonymity, said they have been quietly been told by AshBritt representatives to take their loads to a specific debris dump in the county.
“If you don’t, you don’t get any work the next time,” said one.
Others speculate that the company is handing out the best cleanup assignments to companies in which AshBritt has an investment, allowing it to “double dip” in the federal financial trough.
Perkins acknowledged that his company has “ownership interests in several companies around the United States that are involved in disaster related services,” but denied allegations of favoritism.
“We have no ownership stake in any dumps in Hancock County … (and) we don’t have any interest that would be considered in conflict with our contract,” he said.
Many Hancock County subcontractors interviewed in preparing this article also charged that AshBritt and the Corps have zero tolerance for complainers.
“I’m working with these people,” said one local subcontractor. “Maybe in a few months I can talk about my issues.”
One local offered up an example to back up the charge: Gerald Charles, owner of a Bay St. Louis construction company with heavy equipment at the ready.
Charles, he said, antagonized AshBritt and the Corps by complaining at a Board of Supervisors meeting that he had been given no cleanup work despite an assurance from company officials that he would be among the first hired.
“Gerald pushed too hard and made a lot of people mad,” the contractor said.
Charles, interviewed outside the FEMA trailer he is sharing with his family, said the only work he has been able to land since Katrina was a grading job from the county, and has received not a single job from AshBritt despite many visits to the firm’s local office.
He reiterated the complaint he made at the supervisors meeting, saying the shutout was doubly painful since he is effectively being prevented from working for neighbors who would have hired him if they weren’t waiting for Corps contractors to come in and clean their lots for free.
“I told them, ‘Look, not only didn’t you allow me to work, you took work away from me,’” he said.
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